Phenix City, AL – Ryan Newman did it. Dave Blaney did it. Jeff Gordon did it. Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart still do it. The “it” is race sprint cars. Notice that I did not say “Sprint Cup” cars. If you are not familiar with this type of racing, you may not be alone.
Sprint cars are often described as “little” racecars, but these cars pack a punch. Weighing just 1300 pounds but running a 360 cubic inch, alcohol burning engine that puts out 700 horsepower, these cars top 150 mph on the straight-aways and are designed not to turn, but to slide around the turns at 80 mph.
This past Saturday saw a rare visit of sprint cars as the East Alabama Motor Speedway in Phenix City hosted the United Sprint Car Series. While NASCAR’s popularity reaches new heights in the south, sprint car racing is still somewhat of a novelty here. The USCS, the largest promoter of sprint car racing in the south, sponsors about fifty events each year in the south, including North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri.
Pete Walton, president of the USCS, said that only a few of these events take place in Alabama. “We have three tracks that host events in Alabama,” Walton recounted. He continued that the Arkansas, Missouri, West Tennessee area was by far the hot bed of sprint car racing in the South.
“Late model is just more popular here,” Walton said, referring to the dirt track class that more closely resembles stock car racing.
That is a huge difference from the Midwest, where in states such as Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania you can travel less than 90 minutes and see sprint cars racing almost every weekend. That is the area that drivers like Jeff Gordon got their start in racing behind the wheel of a sprint car.
While some NASCAR drivers used sprint cars as a stepping-stone to the more popular stock cars, that is not always the case. Marshall Skinner, an 18- year veteran of sprints and former USCS series champion, has tried a couple of other classes of racing.
“I just prefer these,” Skinner said of sprint cars. Skinner is from the Memphis area and began racing sprints because his uncle was a racer. Many sprint car racers are exposed to the sport because of family connections. It was that way for current USCS points leader and 8-time series champion, Terry Gray. Gray, who has a total of 14 sprint car championships, was asked why he has continued with sprint cars. “Necessity,” Gray joked. He has been involved in sprints for most of his career and has been very successful.
A long career that is almost exclusively in sprints may or may not be the future for 22-year-old Anthony Nicholson. Nicholson has been racing sprints for the past two years after progressing up from karts to mini sprints, 305hp sprints, and now 360hp sprints. While he has been racing since he was a child, he may still be open to other classes, although he likes this class.
Saturday, however, wasn’t a great night for Nicholson. On the third lap of the 10-lap, 6-car Parts Plus Power Dash, Nicholson’s 1a car went a little too high on the bank in turn three and left the track, rolling several times. East Alabama Motor Speedway is a 3/8 mile, high banked clay track and does not have fences except in front of the grandstand.
Following the incident, Nicholson was asked if he was okay. “I’m fine, but the car is ruined.” That is a big deal for Nicholson. Pete Walton estimated the cost of a competitive sprint car at around $40,000- $45,000 and about $30,000 more each year in tires, fuel, engine rebuilds and the like. With the average purse for a feature win averaging just $2000, making the feature event is a necessity for any team.
The weekend was better for the experienced Gray. He won the feature Friday night at Penton and took the heat win Saturday at East Alabama. He was on the pole for the feature but finished second behind Don Young, the 2007 USCS rookie of the year.
The USCS season continues next week in North Carolina but returns to Alabama on August 24th at North Alabama Speedway in Tuscumbia. The racing season continues at East Alabama Speedway next week with a full schedule of local classes with races beginning at 6:00 PM central time.
Article by Keith George
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